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You Can't Judge A Corn By Its Color

Having grown up in New England, I hold some truths to be self evident. For example, yellow corn is always sweeter than white. I learned this from my parents.

Nearly every weekend of every summer growing up, we'd get in the car and drive along Rhode Island's meandering country roads in search of farm stands selling fresh sweet corn. Often my dad would get out, check the corn and walk back empty-handed, declaring, "Not yellow enough. It won't be sweet." When we would find the right stand selling bright yellow ears of corn, Dad would return with bags full, filling the entire back seat of our 1975 Pontiac Grand Prix, except for the space I was occupying.

So one of my biggest disappointments about moving to Southern California was discovering that almost all corn sold here is white. "How can that be?" I thought. "Doesn't California have the best of all produce?"

It was then that I learned a harsh, real-world truth: Some people think white corn is sweeter than yellow. My parents had insulated me from this reality my whole life.

Although my family would vehemently disagree, the truth is there is no correlation between the color of corn and its sweetness. (Yes, I know, countless numbers of you are firing up your e-mail right now to set me straight, but read on first.)

Maize (zea mays), known in the U.S. as "corn," is a grain that was domesticated in Mesoamerica between 7,000 and 10,000 years ago. It became the staple food of early American cultures such as the Incas, the Mayas and the Aztecs. After Native Americans introduced corn to Christopher Columbus, he took some back to Europe, from where it eventually spread throughout the world.

Today, corn is the world's third-largest food crop and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. In the U.S., the world's leading corn producer, the season varies in different geographical regions but generally runs from June to October and peaks from July to September.

Years ago, freshly picked sweet corn would lose about half of its sweetness within 24 hours. After a couple of days, it would lose nearly all of its sweetness and become unpalatably starchy.

So American plant breeders in the 19th century began developing hybrid corn to create a sweeter, more robust, higher-yielding plant. Since then, virtually every ear of sweet corn grown in the U.S. has been developed with similar characteristics: to taste sweet and stay sweet long after it's harvested.

Through years of research and breeding, three types of improved corn were developed and are still used today. The first type is normal sugary, which is mildly sweet. The second is sugar-enhanced, which has twice the sugar content as normal sugary. Finally, there is the supersweet type, which has nearly three times the sugar as the normal sugary variety. It is this supersweet corn that accounts for the vast majority of sweet corn produced in the U.S. today.

Whether you buy yellow, white or bi-color corn, chances are you're getting the supersweet variety. That's because supersweet comes in all three colors. The corn's color (which is derived from carotene) does not have any correlation with its sugar content.

Actually, people's preferences for corn color are based largely on where they're from and what they ate as a child. For instance, New Englanders generally prefer yellow, or butter and sugar (a beloved bi-color variety), while Californians usually favor white corn.

New and improved isn't always better, though. While today's supersweet corn tastes sweet and has a shelf life of up to one week, it also has fewer soluble polysaccharides, which means the kernels are crunchier and less creamy. Also, some people find supersweet corn cloyingly sweet and lament a lack of good old-fashioned corn flavor.

When possible, buy locally grown, freshly picked corn, since the shorter the time between farm to table, the better the flavor. When selecting corn, hold the ear in your hand; it should feel heavy for its size. Look for fresh, taut, green husks and dry, light-colored silks. Gently pull back the top of the husk; the kernels should be plump and evenly spaced. If you're not going to eat the corn right away, keep them in their husks (to retain moisture), place them inside a plastic bag and refrigerate in the crisper drawer.

Corn is remarkably versatile. It can be boiled, steamed, pressure-cooked, microwaved, roasted, grilled and sauteed. It can even be eaten raw (which is exceptionally crunchy and refreshing in salads and salsas).

The most popular way to eat corn in the U.S. is to boil it until just tender, then slather it with lots of butter and salt. The best part is that it's expected to be eaten with your hands, so delight in its finger-licking-good messiness.

Corn is a staple of many homey comfort dishes, such as corn bread, muffins, biscuits, grits, fritters, chowder and succotash. It dresses up well, too. Pair it with lobster, arugula and a champagne vinaigrette for an elegant salad, or saute it with some lemon, ginger and mint for an exciting side.

One of my favorite dishes is Mexican grilled corn: Hot, tender, smoky corn is brushed with a lime-spiked mayonnaise then rolled in crumbly cotija anejo, a salty, mild-flavored Mexican cheese. After one taste, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it.

No matter how you have it, just have it while it's peak corn season.

By the way, the last time my mom visited me in San Diego, we went to the local farmers market. After walking around for a while, she met up with me carrying several bags and said, "I bought you lots of beautiful produce. I got strawberries, peaches and baby zucchini. I didn't buy any corn, though. All they had was white."

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Susan Russo